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Breaking Bad Watch: Buzzkill

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It is one of those cruel tricks of the calendar that the most unusual and very possibly best episode of Breaking Bad so far—and this following on a string of possibly-best-episodes—should come on the night of Lost’s finale. I’m guessing the audiences overlap a lot, so many of you may not get to it until later in the week, but for me it’s now or never. (As it is, the combination of Lost, personal and business plans this weekend, and an entire Friday spent in mandatory office meetings kept me from reviewing most of NBC’s Thursday comedy finales.)

So some quick impressions of an episode I urge you to watch as soon as you’ve slept off Lost, after the jump:

After I watched the screener of “The Fly,” I tweeted that the episode was like “Breaking Bad’s ‘Pine Barrens,’ plus.” The “Pine Barrens” comparison, while a little facile, meant this: like The Sopranos’ classic, this was a set piece involving two characters in isolation, on a quest/hunt together. It was, first, incredibly well-directed for maximum tension. And the object of the hunt, like it was for Paulie and Christopher with The Russian, was not just important in itself but as a device to bring them into extremis and place their relationship under stress.

Just so, the hunt for the little bugger in the lab was important in itself (for reasons I’ll get into in a second), but it also forced Walt and Jesse to have a confrontation over their working relationship, especially the extent to which Jesse takes the risks in their arrangement seriously. And it forced Walt, with the aid of some spiked coffee, to confront his guilt over letting Jane choke to death (itself terrifically suspenseful as Walt came to the brink of confessing).

[Also as in Pine Barrens, the two characters were physically forced into isolation, but the way “The Fly” did it was essentially Breaking Bad: they were stuck together in a (supposedly) antiseptic lab, pursuing not a deadly adversary but—suiting a show that wrings drama out of small moments, magnified and slowed down as if under a scientist’s microscope—a tiny, tiny thing with potentially horrific implications.]

But I said that this was “‘Pine Barrens,’ plus.” And here’s why the “plus.” Like a lot of fans and critics, I would place “Pine Barrens” near the top of my all-time favorite Sopranos episodes. And yet I have some reservations about it, and not because I’m one of the people enraged by the fact that we never learned what happened to the Russian. Episodes that stand alone tend to have an advantage in all-time-best lists, and yet what distinguished The Sopranos was its greatness as a serial, not an anthology; yet “Pine Barrens” was uncharacteristically isolated from much of the show’s larger story.

Not so “The Fly.” While it played like almost an anthology set piece, it was intimately connected to the ongoing story of the show, and not simply because of Walt’s near-confession. The fact that Walt recognizes that the fly could mean disaster for him and Jesse—and that a production disaster could mean death—shows powerfully how little margin for error Walt has, even as he has secured a long-term arrangement with Gus. Even the smallest thing—especially the smallest thing—could mean the end.

Also unlike “Pine Barrens,” of course, we got a resolution: this one fly, anyway, is dead. But along the way, we got so many fine moments and passages of dialogue that I’m not going to bother listing them all. (Honestly, it’s almost as if the series is showing off at this point.) But chief among them had to be the scene in which Walt says, plainly, that he realizes that he has lived too long—not just that, but he pinpoints the precise moment when he should have died, for his own sake and his family’s.

As we saw when he swerved from the oncoming truck last week, Walt still has too much core fear of death simply to give into that. But living with the realization, he knows that he is now a kind of ghost, with golden handcuffs rather than chains. He is wandering the Earth, undead, like a ghost seeking some kind of peace. And that, he has discovered, is even more elusive than finding The Russian.